Friday, May 04, 2007


(News-Herald, May 3) Every time an organization goes through a crisis, it reveals two things about itself. It doesn’t matter what size the organization is. It can be as small as a family or as large as a government. And it doesn’t matter whether the organization intends to reveal these two things or not; in a time of crisis, the revelations cannot be avoided.

First, a crisis reveals who is on the team.

This works two ways. One is that we find out who steps up and who steps back. Some people don’t want to be on the team; they want to kibbitz and cheer and offer critiques of what the team did. But on the whole, they’d rather not be directly involved. Like the children in a family, they prefer the security of believing that the grown-ups, the team, will take care of everything.

Sometimes people who might have stepped up have simply given up trying. Because in a crisis, leaders show who they think is on the team. The easiest way to track this is by the flow of information. The people who get the information quickly and completely are on the team. Everyone else isn’t.

Leaders, managers, presidents of boards—they mostly know that they’re supposed to include everybody on the team. Sometimes they honestly mean to--sometimes they even think they’re doing it.

If you are in a leadership position, imagine a crisis developing. Immediately, you think, “I have to let X know what’s happening.” X = the actual members of the team.

You also think, “I need to let Y know, too—after I know what we can tell them and how and when.” Y = the people who are not on the team. And now that you haven’t included them, they know they’re not on the team.

The other thing that’s revealed in a crisis is what the organization really values. You can find the true values of the organization in the “have to” list.

In the midst of a crisis, whether it’s an onslaught of government regulation or a flat tire on the family vacation, leadership has to make choices about what to keep doing and what will have to be modified or dropped. Leaders will often talk as if these categories are decided by circumstance, but very often they are entirely a matter of choice.

When the front tire on the family mini-van blows, Dad can say, “Well, we’ll still eat lunch at noon, but it’ll be sandwiches instead of Burger King.” He could also say, “Well, we’ll still get our Whoppers, but it’ll be later than usual.” In each case, he may act as if the tire’s to blame, but he has told you whether he most values the schedule or the King.

It’s these two revelations, the revelation of the team and the revelation of values, that often give a crisis its most lasting effects.

At Virginia Tech, it turned out during the initial crisis that hardly anyone was on the team, and it appears that leadership valued things such as maintaining the slothlike bureaucratic process and keeping trouble quiet over making 100% sure that students were safe. But as the day wore on, as on 9/11, the team became larger, and the values that it revealed were values everyone across the country could share.

A crisis can bring an organization tightly together, one team united behind a shared goal.

But sometimes a crisis creates cracks in the foundation. An organization can weather the crisis itself, and yet months down the road find itself tearing apart, collapsing.

When your leaders cut you out of the loop, when you leap up to help and are told “Get back in your seat; the team will call you when we want you,” and when you find out that the things you value aren’t even close to the list of “have to’s”—well, those are hard things to bounce back from.

Leaders can tell their people time after time, “We’re all in this together; we’re all a part of the team.” But when crisis comes, if they don’t act as if they mean it, nobody is going to believe them. Leaders can tell their people time after time, “We’re here to make the best widgets we can for our customers.” But when crisis comes, if they holler, “Drop the widgets and help the lawyers keep us looking good,” all their nice widget words mean next to nothing.

Whether you manage a family or a business or a school, in the midst of crisis, you will tell your people the truth of what you really believe. You should hope that it matches what you tell them, and yourself, the rest of the time.

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